The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Roma Holiday

Posted by steigs on February 19, 2008

The Champions League is starting again with the good stuff — the knock-out rounds.  One team I’m rooting for is Roma.  Partly this is because they’re matched with Real Madrid.  (Boo!  Hiss!)  But it’s also because I’ve developed a fondness for Totti and the boys from Rome.  They have taken advantage of the nuclear penalty on Juventus (down you go!) to become regulars in the Champions League and often play an attractive game. 

 Oh, and M. and I had a great time when we went to see them in Rome a few years back, even if the game was on the dull side.  To learn more about Roma, the cult of Totti, the “flying donkeys,” and what it’s like to watch a game at an old Olympic stadium with a tribute to Mussolini out front, read on after the jump…

Rome B May 2005

A library of books has been written on the charms and character of Rome B I know, having read several B so I won=t spend much time on the tourist trail of the city, although M. and I certainly did.  Campo di Fiore, Piazza Navonna, the Vatican, the jumbled Forum remnants, Trasteverte, the Spanish Steps… 

Chances are you know the drill.  We spent hours just walking and hours at outdoor restaurants, applying M.=s rule that the place just off the square usually has better food than the place on the square since the latter can coast on the draw of the scenery.

The weather is sunny and early summer warm, the streets B as they always are, I suppose B are crowded with fellow tourists.  So we went to a Serie A game to get away from our map- and guidebook-toting compatriots.  Time for a break with the locals.

You may think this shows remarkable tolerance on M.=s part B to spend an afternoon of her Roman holiday at a soccer game.  In her own way, however, M. is a bigger fan than I am.  She was certainly a better player in her youth than I was.  Blessed with an early growth spurt, M. was a tough defender, terrorizing the boys for a few years until they got big enough to take what she was dishing out.  Along the way, soccer became something she shared with her father, a self-taught coach of his children=s teams.  Even now her sense of tactical side of the game remains superior to mine.

We catch a tram from the Piazza delle Popolo to a square just across the Tiber from the Stadio Olimpico, center piece of the 1960 Olympics and home to both of Rome=s teams, Roma and Lazio.  Today, it is Roma=s turn to have a home game, which is obvious by our fellow tram riders, many wearing scarves with the burgundy and burnt orange of Roma.

M. and I walk across a bridge with the Roma fans to reach the stadium.  I see on our map that the Milvio bridge is just a few blocks down the Tiber from here.  That would be the place where Constantine won the Roman Empire, which he then made Christian.  So much history around these hills.

The city=s soccer teams have contributed relatively little to that glorious aura.  Oh, Roma and Lazio are usually decent sides, often in European competition, but they have only five scudettos between them.  The northern powers have rarely faced any sort of consistent threat from the teams down here in Italy=s capital.  There were signs a few years ago, at the start of the decade, that Roma and Lazio could finally mount that challenge, with Lazio winning Serie A in 2000 and Roma in 2001.  Both quickly ran aground on money troubles, and took to selling stars, not buying them, in the face of remarkably large debts.  Back to being merely very good.

Traditionally, Roma has been the team of the urban working class, with something of a left-wing bent, while Lazio (the name of the Italian region in which Rome sits) has had a more middle-class and suburban fan base.  Lazio has also had a distinctly right wing air to it, dating back at least to their days as Mussolini=s favorites.  The Lazio ultras have an unfortunate tendency to display fascist tendencies such as racism and anti-Semitism down to this day.  Lazio ultras, for example, often expressed support for Serbian leader Slobadan Milosevic during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s and have been implicated in criminal behavior like desecrating Jewish cemeteries. 

All this makes me glad that it is Roma we have come to see play.  The weather has turned gray and warm.  It is the final day of the Serie A season and relatively little is still up for grabs.  Juventus has already clinched yet another scudetto.  The drama of AC Milan=s drive for a Champions League title had gone awry earlier in the week during those wild six minutes.  About the only thing left to determine is the matter of Asalvation,@ as the eternally Catholic Italians put it; that is, which teams at the bottom avoid relegation (Asaved@) and those which do not.  There is a log-jam at the bottom of Serie A going into this last round of games.  A half-dozen teams are at risk of demotion to Serie B, including today=s visitors, Chievo from Verona.  Roma are safe in the middle of the table, although they are preparing for a two-legged Coppa Italia final against Inter in the coming days.

We fans flood across the major avenue running beside the Tiber, the horde ignoring the traffic lights, and enter the grand entryway to the Stadio Olimpico grounds.  A tall Egyptian obelisk stands guard, as they do all over Rome, and I am surprised to see it still reads AMussolini.@  There are a handful of souvenir and sandwich stands.  The gear is the usual B scarves, t-shirts, jerseys.  Invariably the jerseys are that of local boy made legend, Francesco Totti, Roma=s current star and creative force.  The food is, as you would expect, a cut above what one gets in northern climes B panninis, pizzas B as well as beer.  However, there is little public drinking, Italy being more of a Aglass of wine with dinner@ culture. 

The stadium grounds, busy with arriving fans, feature sporting facilities like a pool and tennis courts.  There is also a low-lying track stadium circled by a series of statues of giant athletes.  Perhaps they are a source of inspiration for those I see jogging around and around.  The Stadio Olimpico is nestled under a wooden hill, tucked a bit away from the city=s bustle, and the grounds feel more like a park.

The crowd is quite a mixture.  Serie A is not just for youngsters, at least not in Rome.  There are whole families, senior citizens, women, boys with dads B the works.  M. and I get pizza and have a pre-game lunch on a bench, watching the Roma fans flow by.

After eating, we buy Atribune latera@ tickets (for about $25 each) which put us along a sideline, high up and close to one goal.  A futuristic roof was added to the Stadio Olimpico for the 1990 World Cup and it now seats around 60,000.  It is relatively spartan B if I can use a Greek term about something in the heart of Rome B and I see only limited concessions, a snack shack and an Aofficial@ souvenir tent.  The modern wave of Amall-ization@ of our stadiums B shops everywhere, abundant food kiosks B has not reached Rome, that=s for certain.

We hike up to our seats, which are blue plastic and backless, and I see that the Roma ultras have already almost completely filled their Curva Sud territory behind the distant goal to our left.  I see flags waving.  The Curva Nord just to our right is filling steadily with its own set of Roma ultras.  Kick-off is still forty-five minutes away.

Even so, our nosebleed section gradually gains some population.  It appears to be a family area.  A father and daughter with braces pair sit behind us and what we guess to be an uncle/nephew duo below us.  A few rows away is a father with a toddler, a cute little guy with his own Roma jersey.  ALittle Totti,@ M. immediately dubs him, since he (of course) has the star=s name on the back.  As does his father.  And, oh, 15,000 others in the Stadio Olimpico by kick-off.  It is as if they only sell Totti replica jerseys, with a minor sideline in generic ones.  Jerseys for other Roma players must be only available by special order.  I have rarely seen such unanimity of fandom as this cult of Totti.

Later, during the game, M. notices that Little Totti is being taught by his father to applaud whenever the real Totti gets the ball.  What makes this particularly charming is that Little Totti is at the age where he is just mastering the act of clapping in the first place B so he is giggling and happy just to properly execute a clap, let alone when Totti does something good with the ball.  One of the most cheerful fans I have ever attended a game with.

Lupo the wolf, the Roma mascot, does a pre-game circuit, drawing children down to the fence.  (If you don=t know why the Roma mascot is a wolf, try to recall your Roman history.)  Firefighters wet down the running track circling the stadium, in preparation for the traditional flare tossing overture.

By the time kick-off is close, the stadium is largely full.  The only extensive vacant area is the corner slice of the stands reserved for the visiting Chievo fans down from Verona in Italy=s prosperous north.  Their numbers are low in part because of the distance involved.  It probably also has something to do with the fact that Chievo is a late-arriving team in Serie A.  In fact, one ultra banner gives 1994 as the founding date of that particular fan club.

Chievo has been one of Italian soccer=s most pleasant surprises in recent years.  Born in the small city of Chievo, population 3,000, a suburb of Verona – they play in Verona=s Bentigodi Stadium now that they have reached the big time.  Chievo are nicknamed the Flying Donkeys, after the insult Verona fans used to toss their direction B AThere will never be a Verona derby in Serie A until donkeys fly.@  Some shrewd club-building saw them rise from Serie C (1989), Serie B (1994), and finally Serie A (2000).  When the team reached Serie A, an unofficial traffic sign went up on the outskirts of Chievo warning of flying donkeys.  In fact, Chievo are now Verona=s sole Serie A team as Verona is down in Serie B this season.  The Anever be a derby@ insult has been turned around.

However, Chievo has had a so-so season and need a tie today to be sure of Asalvation.@  A loss to Roma and their fate depends on results elsewhere in Italy this afternoon because they can be leapfrogged if other teams win.  Indeed, to reduce the potential for mischief B in Italy the potential for mischief can never be eliminated B all the games in Serie A today are kicking off simultaneously.

The Roma ultras sing a bit as game-time approaches and the Chievo fans can be heard doing some cheers of their own.  The line-ups are announced.  The Stadio Olimpico has a modern video scoreboard and pictures of the players flash before us as each of the starters is announced, with the crowd providing the last name for each Roma player.

Announcer: Vincenzo!

Crowd: Montella!

When the announcer reads AFrancesco!@ the crowd=s responding ATOT-TI!@ is so loud I think the Stadio Olimpico itself shudders.

The afternoon has grown muggy and M. predicts the pace of the game will be slow as a result.  Roma are in their usual burnt orange and burgundy jerseys and are resting a few starters as they look ahead to the Coppa Italia games.  Chievo are bright in yellow uniforms.

Kick-off.  Chievo comes out with verve.  They are not sitting back on defense, playing for a 0-0 draw.  Perhaps they think they can steal a goal against a disinterested Roma and that scoring would almost guarantee the draw they need.  Chievo players press Roma players whenever they have possession and nearly snag that early goal.  Roma gradually reign them in, holding the ball for longer and longer stretches, forcing Chievo to attack on counters.  Totti has a central role behind the forwards, feeding nice passes in every direction, orchestrating the offense like a point guard.

We get regular updates on the other Serie A games.  Whenever there=s a goal elsewhere an airport-like chime comes over the public address system and the video scoreboard pauses in its rolling ad display long enough to show the latest score.  When Palermo takes a lead on Lazio the cheer is so raucous it is almost as if Roma had scored.  Ah, rivalry.  It gives you a second team to root for each week B whoever is playing your rival.

The Roma fans are singing.  There is one tune that includes a ARoma, Roma, Roma@ bit that has a bittersweet, weary end of the night feel to me, like something Sinatra would sing by a piano with a whiskey.  Perhaps the Italian lyrics, if I knew them, would suggest other images.  There are Roma fan club banners all over the ultra sections representing Rome neighborhoods like Testaccio as well as more distant cities such as Turin, even Brussels.  M. points out to me that, unlike at RFK, the ushers and vendors here pause to watch the game.  One even takes an empty seat near us for a smoke break while he watches.  Fringe benefit of working the game, I suppose.

Roma begins to get clear chances to score.  Daniele Corvia shows why he=s the back-up forward by blowing one of them.  Totti takes a long shot and forces a diving save from the Chievo goalie.  A bit later he tries a speculative shot from forty yards out, attempting to float one over the goalie.  No luck but it=s just the sort of audacious move they love him for.  Totti has been a soccer superstar for years now, often a central player for the mighty Italian national team.  Like many an artist, he is prone to fits of petulance, and even managed to get suspended during Euro 2004 for spitting on an opponent. 

A Rome native, Totti has chosen to stay with Roma during these leaner years while the club gets its financial act together, rather than taking an even bigger contract elsewhere, further cementing the allegiances of the fans.  Totti is also widely mocked in Italy for being a bit, um, slow, perhaps because he is said to speak Italian with a rough Roman accent.  There is even a whole genre of Totti jokes, which resemble the old-fashioned Polish jokes of our less politically correct days.  To his immense credit, Totti published a collection of the best Totti jokes B AJokes about Totti as Told by Totti@ B and gave the proceeds to charity.

The scoreboard keeps cheerily updating us on other games, much to the rapt attention of the Chievo fans.  The game here remains tied so, as of the moment, they are Asaved@ but all it would take is one of those Totti passes to create a goal then, uh oh, it depends on how the revived Fiorentina or financially troubled Parma fare.  Champion Juventus score again and again, drawing whistles of derision each time.

The weather is gyrating, turning darker and breezy.  Rain on the way.  We have a roof, or at least an overhang, but the field is wide open to the skies.  On that field, by minute 40 Chievo is slowing down, as if playing just to get to half-time.  Behind me, the father, who is a classic hand talker, says AMama mia!@ in exasperation every time a Roma attack generates a near miss.  I have a hard time keeping a straight face each time.  Meanwhile, Little Totti is having a great day with this new clapping thing.

Half-time.  The rain starts, a real downpour.  Thunder booms somewhere behind us, sounding quite near.  Even with our overhead protection the wind whips a few drops our way.  I find it rather refreshing.  Fans in the more exposed areas retreat to covered sections.  Except the ultras, that is, who wave their flags in the wind and the rain.  I get a soda from one of the wandering vendors.  No beer here, just sodas and water.

The second half begins in the rain.  Ultras hold a few flares aloft.  The players seem oblivious to the conditions, as if a thunderstorm is no different than the sunshine the game began in.  Chievo is continuing to play with care and caution.  After all, a tie is all they need.

Chime!  Fiorentina may be saving themselves by beating anonymous Brescia.

Chime!  Lazio is losing badly.  There are cheers.

Roma is generating a scoring chance here, a chance there.  The players are beginning to slide excessively on the grass, like kids on a ASlip and Slide.@  Splashes are visible when they go down.  The game is still being played solidly, if rather unexcitingly.  A tie is an acceptable result for both teams.

Chime!  Lazio is rallying.  Whistles from the crowd.

Chime!  Siena may have stayed up by scoring a goal.

The rain weakens, the sky grows lighter.  Totti continues to dig into his generous bag of tricks.  Nothing much comes of his attempts.

The game peters out, ending 0-0 as the rain fades to a light drizzle.  Chievo fans go beserk.  Salvation!  The Chievo team runs to the corner with their fans to celebrate with them.  The players toss yellow rain-soaked jerseys over the fence into the crowd, undershirts are lofted over as well in some cases.  The donkeys will fly in Serie A again next year.

The Roma team circles the field on the running track, kicking souvenir soccer balls into the stands as a thank you gesture.  Totti leads the way, with a surrounding cloud of photographers giving him the air of a political candidate or royalty.  They conclude in front of the Curva Sud, its flags waving, applauding their own fans.

We exit as the rain conveniently ends, looking for another trattoria just off the square.


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